County, town and watershed advocates hash out roles to secure $1.5 million in planning grants

by Kate Shunney

Two Morgan County watershed groups are laying the groundwork for a new plan to manage flooding and water quality in the areas east of Cacapon Mountain.

Warm Springs Run Watershed Association and Sleepy Creek Watershed Association are in line for two large federal planning grants through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that could sketch out future watershed protection projects in Morgan County.

Stream bank stabilization in place along Sleepy Creek.

Last Wednesday, January 17, watershed volunteers and the NRCS coordinator for West Virginia met with the Morgan County Commission to pin down who would do what under the grant guidelines.

Early in January, Rebecca MacLeod told county officials that this is an optimal time for Morgan County to look at watershed protections. There is federal money available to make a protection plan and the construction of the U.S. 522 bypass has changed the movement of water in the watersheds, she said.

“The reason we’re interested in doing these plans is because of the drastically disturbed area due to the bypass. It has affected 10% of the upper watershed,” said MacLeod. “We already know we’re facing climate change pressures and an increase in the intensity of storm trends.”

A watershed protection plan will allow the Town of Bath and Morgan County to “better prepare for any potential damages coming our way,” MacLeod said.

Most of the downtown Berkeley Springs area is in a flood risk zone.

The Town of Bath has already agreed to be the sponsor for the Warm Springs Run Watershed grant, which could approach $600,000. There is no local match to the federal grant, and any projects that are included in a watershed protection plan from this grant will be paid for through federal money with no local cash match, said several people at the meeting.

In some instances, protection projects could be as simple as the planting and replanting of trees in the bypass disturbance area, and it could include water diversion and soil stabilization efforts as well.

Some of the green infrastructure features used in the Berkeley Springs Streetscapes projects could also be scaled larger and placed strategically around the larger watershed.

MacLeod and Jim Michael, a longtime conservation advocate in Morgan County, reminded county and town officials that the county’s flood control dams were planned and built in the 1950s with this same source of money. Those dams significantly reduced flooding in central Morgan County.

Sleepy Creek watershed

Projects in the Sleepy Creek watershed, which is more than 16,000 acres and encompasses more than 50% of the county’s land, will be of a different variety.

Chuck Marsh, Sleepy Creek Watershed Association president, said bank stabilization projects have been successfully along Sleepy Creek, but there are other priorities to focus on, including water quality near new farms and infrastructure, like the low water bridge near Johnsons Mill that is underwater during most heavy rain events. There are 320 miles of streambed in the Sleepy Creek watershed, said Marsh.

Sleepy Creek volunteers are asking the Morgan County Commission to be the local sponsor for their separate watershed protection planning grant, which could approach $900,000.

“It’s a big plan and it’ll take about 18 months to do it,” said Michael.

“Since the funding is there now, we want to take advantage of the funding and get the plan done for flood reduction and mitigation, with no match needed,” MacLeod said.

County, town pick roles

Assistant State Conservationist for Water Resources Christi Hicks answered some question from county officials last Wednesday as she sketched out the next steps in securing the grants.

Hicks said the big requirement for the grant contract is designating which public agency will lead “the procurement effort.” The question is whether the town or county will find the engineering firm to study and make the watershed protection plan, and then work with that firm to hold public hearings associated with the process.

Hicks said the NRCS can take the lead or contract that work out themselves, or another government agency like the town or county could be that lead entity.

Hicks said in order to be the lead agency, an entity “has to have to power of eminent domain” even though she said that wouldn’t be needed.

The lead entity will also request reimbursement for work under the grant.

Commissioners discussed the difference between being a sponsor or co-sponsor for the grant and being the lead financial point of contact.

“If we’re the applicant and are responsible for the funds, I want to be lead,” said Commissioner Bill Clark.

Hicks is scheduled to be on the agenda at the February 1 County Commission meeting to confirm their role in the grant administration.

Commission President Sean Forney said regardless of their respective roles in the grant and planning process, the county and town both know the value of watershed planning for local residents and businesses.

“Our objectives align. Everything that’s been done in the last 15 years has helped to minimize the impact of flooding on properties,” said Forney.